Australian Outlook

Korean Notebook III

03 Oct 2014
Colin Chapman

Australia has a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, right? Trade minister Andrew Robb is rightly proud of this achievement in the first year of the Abbott government, and the prime minister has welcomed it more than once. So can we all look forward to cheaper Hyundai and Kia cars and even more competitive white goods and electronics from Samsung?

Er no. The FTA has yet to be ratified by the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly, and that has to happen by the end of this year for it to take effect. As the remaining days of 2014 are ticked off the calendar, it seems possible, even likely, that Seoul’s politicians may not meet the deadline.

Our diplomats at the Australian embassy, including the ambassador, Bill Paterson, do not disguise their concern. There is still time, of course, but the attention of the National Assembly has been heavily distracted by the complex and controversial investigation into the Sewol ferry disaster last April.

It is not that Seoul’s legislators are against the Australian FTA—though it still faces scrutiny by the key investment and agriculture committees—but they can focus on little else than a tragedy that cost the lives of over 300 of the 476 people on board, many of them children from the same high school. At the last count, there were 94 bills stacked up waiting for passage through the National Assembly, with the FTA among hem.

The disaster has obsessed Korean politics above even the threat from the North for one simple reason: It was man-made. First, the Sewol had been transformed into a top-heavy tub. More sleeping cabins were added to the Sewol’s upper decks before the ferry began plying the popular Incheon-to-Jeju route in early 2013. Prosecutors have said that the design change was one reason the Sewol had suddenly listed and overturned.

In the blame game engendered by the inquiry, the shipping authorities have been under attack for approving the changes. Early investigation also showed that safety regulations were ignored. Students testified that they had been told to stay inside the listing ship, even as the captain and other crewmembers abandoned ship. Consequently, the captain and three crewmembers are now being tried for homicide through negligence. At his trial, the captain blamed the company owning the vessel for policies that meant it was habitually overloaded.

The emergency services and the coastguards have also faced serious criticism for their inadequacies. The prime minister resigned, while President Park Geun-hye has herself been caught up in the aftermath for being slow to root out those who were claimed to be corrupt; ignoring regulations and safety standards.

South Korea has some of the world’s toughest defamation laws. Newspapers have to be very careful what they say about any individual or organisation. Truth is now regarded as sufficient defence.

Until now, internet bloggers have been assuming that their comments will go unnoticed or unpunished, but now the Park administration is showing signs of cracking down on attacks on itself and its friends.

Surprising in a country considered one of Asia’s most progressive democracies, state prosecutors are using new powers given to them in order to scrutinise web blogs and remove texts that they consider to be “factually wrong”.

This little-publicised new restraint on freedom of expression came after departmental heads of a number of government ministries and agencies met on 18 September to agree on a way of cracking down on libel on the web, as well as on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Critics are not convinced. They believe it is a way of stifling public opinion, especially criticism of the government.

Already one Seoul editor, and a translator, is in hot water for an online article that raised the question of the location of the president on the day of the ferry disaster. The form of censorship now being introduced looks uncannily like that practiced in neighbouring China.


Colin Chapman, president of the AIIA in NSW, is leading a delegation visiting Seoul for a series of meetings with Korean officials and think tanks.